Katy Hershberger | Longreads | August 2019 | 25 minutes (6,207 words)
“Will you pray with us?” It was my fifth day as a camp counselor; I was 17 and the three girls who asked me were probably 12. The five years between us was a teenage lifetime, though now as adults, we could be classmates, colleagues, barflies on adjacent stools. Then, we were children. I pushed myself up from the cool summer ground. “Um, yeah. Do you — ” my voice cracked, “ — want to be saved?”
It was July 2001 in rural Virginia, the last night of Christian summer camp. A hundred girls sat in a circle around the campfire, the smell of embers and bug spray permeating our clothes. We sang praise songs, lifting our hands toward the Virginia stars, toward God. The camp director led us in prayer. Then she implored the campers: If you want to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, ask a counselor to pray with you.
A week earlier, I had graduated from CILT, a three-year counselor prep program. The acronym stood for Camper in Leadership Training, though Caring Imaginative Loving Teachers was printed on our t-shirts. I collected songs and games in a “resource file,” I taught a daily drama class during the week-long camp sessions, and I stockpiled readings and Bible verses for daily devotionals. I did not learn how someone becomes a Christian.
I don’t remember what the girls wanted to ask God that night, but it was, blessedly, not to be saved. We huddled away from the crowd, holding hands, and I stood above them, just barely the tallest. I prayed, my voice husky with uncertainty, and stared at the grass, glancing at the girls’ faces to see if I was doing this right. I asked God to help and guide them, and I silently asked the same for myself.
I grew up Catholic. I went to mass every Sunday, said grace before meals, and was active in the teen youth group. My mother served as a Eucharistic minister, while my dad counted the collection. They both sponsored adults who were converting to Catholicism, shepherding people toward Christ in a way that, later, around that campfire, I couldn’t. Church wasn’t my favorite thing, but I knew it was an important thing.
It was July 2001 in rural Virginia, the last night of Christian summer camp. A hundred girls sat in a circle around the campfire, the smell of embers and bug spray permeating our clothes.
In second grade, a friend invited me to spend a week at Camp Cherith (pronounced care-ith) with her Methodist church group. The first night at dinner I looked around to see women of all ages — it was an all-girls camp, staff included — and was introduced to the camp director, Hummer (short for Hummingbird). Each staff member was known by a bird name, in honor of the ravens who fed Elijah in the Bible. The directors weren’t Audubon sticklers, though, and monikers could include cartoons like Tweety or Zazu from The Lion King.
At one long table in the back of the room sat a large group of teenagers. These girls, I learned, were CILTs, a title indicating they were somewhere between campers and counselors. I quickly recognized that they possessed a combination of the celebrity of popular girls in school and the devotion bestowed on a favorite teacher. They also went by bird names, and over the years I found that a CILT’s real name was priceless secret information. We campers all had our favorites, whether or not we had actually talked to them, like choosing crushes amongst boy band members. Mine was Scarlet Tanager.
The next day was CILT Initiation, a good-natured hazing of first-year CILTies that involved silly costumes, silence, and somehow getting wet by the end of the day. I watched Huey and Dewey dress up like pigs, oink through meals, and take a mud bath in the lake. The week concluded with CILT Graduation, and we campers spent Friday making congratulatory cards for the graduates. The ceremony struck me as important and glamorous as the CILTs, looking beautiful, wise, and unified in their matching blue shirts, passed flames from candle to candle, a symbol of something — sharing God’s light with the world? — I can’t recall. The CILT counselor gave a funny, touching speech about each graduate that left everyone on the dais, and in the dining hall audience, in tears. I have albums of disposable camera photos of these rituals and I marked the girls’ bird names in pen on the back, but those monikers are meaningless to me now.
A few months later the friend who first brought me to camp moved away, but I went back every year for a decade, from age 7 to 17. It became a fixture of my childhood; I spent one week each summer performing in skits and singing songs, scratching mosquito bites and getting dirty. I found a favorite counselor, Road Runner, a quirky artist in her early 20s who wore Doc Martens with shorts. At camp, I quit sucking my thumb, a habit that had lasted until I was 10, and a CILT taught me to tie my hair in a towel after a shower.
I swam in the lake, and when I emerged, the downy hairs on my legs were made visible by the murky water. Though bikinis were forbidden, I and a few other girls wore two-piece bathing suits cut wide across our clavicles and bellies, assuming that these children’s suits were acceptable on preadolescent bodies. Later, camp clarified the rules: one-piece bathing suits only. It was an early indicator of the enforcement of modesty in Christian life, protecting men’s eyes even when men weren’t present.
I recognized that I was going to a Christian camp, but I didn’t think it was that Christian. As a young kid, it was easy not to notice the religious aspects in favor of the friendships and activities. Talking about Jesus a few times a day seemed like a small penance for a week of craft-making, lake-swimming, marshmallow-toasting fun. Even more, I was glad for the distractions from religion and hid that I was Catholic, not Methodist like the friend who first brought me, or Baptist, the word that was painted on the dirt-road signs at the camp’s entrance. I wasn’t sure what denomination Camp Cherith belonged to, but knew I wasn’t a part of it. Perhaps I willfully ignored the Christian elements because when I thought about them I felt guilty and out of place, as if I were cheating on my faith or tricking the staff.
When we were 11, I convinced my best friend, who wasn’t religious, to join me for my fifth summer at camp. Her mother expressed concern that since she didn’t have a religious background, she might feel left out. I assured them that it didn’t really feel like a Christian camp and her mother agreed to let her attend. But I’d been mistaken, forgetting the multiple daily Bible studies. That summer I learned the camp’s motto: “Christ in every aspect of life.”
Early that week, tucked into the bottom bunk underneath my friend, I woke in the middle of the night needing to use the bathroom. Walking anywhere alone, especially at night, was forbidden, but I couldn’t shake her awake to be my buddy. I’d always been a rule-follower and feared what could happen to me alone. Then, a small trickle warmed my leg. I clenched my groin to stop it and quickly contemplated running outside, but I didn’t think I could make it. I was frozen, then resigned to what was happening, and let go. I was mortified; as a rising sixth grader, I was much too old for accidents.
I changed my pajamas and went into Road Runner’s room, which she shared with another counselor, and which was separated from the rest of the cabin by a curtain. In her half-asleep confusion she tried to help, but I didn’t need to change the sheets, I told her, and now there seemed to be nothing more to do. In the morning, the smell of urine filled the room and a dry, dark spot marked the concrete floor near my bunk. If anyone noticed that I had changed clothes, they didn’t say anything. The next day, our cabin won a contest for CILTs to take over our cleaning duties, and afterward the odor and the stain were gone. I wonder now if the contest was rigged, ensuring that we’d win and the floor would be cleaned. I was too embarrassed to realize it then, but I was beginning to learn the kindness of silence, the secrets friends keep for you, and the truths and betrayals of my body.
The next summer, Road Runner was my counselor again. She seemed so cool to me, vaguely grunge unlike the other straight-laced counselors, a painter who had figured out how to balance creativity with Christianity, a combination that I craved then and sometimes still feels elusive. I valued our closeness, and I liked to believe I was her favorite too.
That summer, I confessed to her that I was Catholic. “I don’t really belong here,” I said, and explained that I wasn’t Methodist or Baptist or whatever I was supposed to be.
“Camp Cherith is nondenominational,” she replied. “It’s just at a Baptist camp ground.” In fact, she explained, you didn’t even have to be a Christian to attend. Camp was for everyone.
A few nights later, Road Runner called me into her room while most girls were already under the covers. We sat on her bed and she asked me if I had been saved. “I’ve had my first communion,” I said, “if that’s what you mean?”
A few months later the friend who first brought me to camp moved away, but I went back every year for a decade, from age 7 to 17. It became a fixture of my childhood.
No, she explained, that’s not the same thing. “Being saved means that you accept Jesus Christ into your heart as your savior. It means that you’re a Christian. That you’ve begun a personal relationship with God.” I knew I was a Christian and I had a relationship with God. We talked before bed, before meals, before big tests. But I was uncomfortable discussing it: I leaned toward the internal prayers of Catholicism rather than the performative Christianity I had experienced at camp. And the idea of needing to accept Christ’s love was foreign to me. I was taught that God lived inside me, inside all of us. How do you invite something that’s already a part of you?
Road Runner continued. “Have you accepted Jesus’s love and asked Him to walk with you through life?”
“No?” I shifted on her bed. “Not really.”
“Would you like to, right now?”
I pictured Hummer writing my name on the long piece of butcher paper that hung on the wall of the dining hall, tracking all the people who had become Christians that week, and I agreed to be saved. It seemed important to Road Runner, and I knew it couldn’t hurt. This was like a failsafe; if attending mass and Religious Ed classes at home didn’t guarantee eternal life, this would. We prayed quietly together, during which she did most of the talking. Then she hugged and congratulated me. I didn’t tell her that, after “accepting Jesus’ love,” I didn’t feel any different. I feared disappointing her. I feared discovering that I prayed incorrectly, that I didn’t focus enough or that my heart wasn’t pure, that I wasn’t really saved. I feared being discovered as an outsider, with wild ideas from my Catholic church and public school.
Even after my salvation prayer, “nondenominational” at camp seemed to mean non-Catholic, and I only learned as an adult that it’s often a synonym for “evangelical.” There were a few other Catholics, but as far as I know I’m the only one who felt out of place. I was a faithful kid, but I was confused by the differences between the practices I was being taught at home and at camp. Catholic prayers are memorized and personal devotion is silent, unlike the improvised, public prayers I heard around the campfire. Instead of Bible stories, Catholics focus on symbols and events. Saints. The Rosary. Confession. Holy Days of Obligation. These things held great importance for me, but I was totally unfamiliar with the scriptures recited by kids at camp.
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As a result, camp both created and judged my religious beliefs. I found God in nature and allowed myself (silent) extemporaneous prayer. I adored pop-inspired worship songs, emotional as power ballads, which I eventually performed for a choir audition in high school. I recognized Christ in most aspects of life. I learned more about scripture than what my CCD classes taught at home, but my Catholic Bible had more books in it than the other campers’ and they seemed to think that these additions were ancillary, fake. Plus, the teachings at camp didn’t always match what I was brought up to believe. The next summer, my counselor told us that Jesus is the only person never to have sinned.
“What about Mary?” I asked as I shredded a blade of grass into strings. “I thought she was without sin too,” a central Catholic belief. “No,” Puffin replied before moving on in the lesson. I knew other denominations held slightly different beliefs, but I still thought camp was supposed to be for everyone.
In my decade at camp I was constructing my identity, as well as constructing my faith, and I’m still trying to reconcile the divergent views of religion I was taught as a girl. These differing belief systems didn’t cancel each other out, instead they piled on the guilt and expectations that I be a good Christian. Catholicism, for its part, can be just as oppressive as fundamentalist Christianity. To this day, I feel guilty when I do any of the following:
Fail to pray every day
Skip mass on Ash Wednesday, All Saints Day, et al.
Cringe at oversentimental phrases like “walk with Christ”
Admit, like I am now, to being a mediocre Christian
When I was 13 I arrived at camp slightly taller, slightly pimplier, slightly curvier than before. I had pink hair, though it had faded by then to more of a strawberry blonde. I hoped it would signify that I was slightly punkish (I wasn’t, but desperately wanted to be), and I wondered if camp people would think it was too crazy. They didn’t. My hair was occasionally complimented but mostly ignored.
One day early in the week, I stood from my seat after lunch and felt wetness. I looked down to find a red puddle on my yellow plastic chair. My first thought was that I’d sat in something, maybe Kool-Aid, but then it dawned on me that, no, my pad had leaked. I ran to the bathroom and saw a half-moon of blood ringing the backside of my shorts, spanning almost all the way across. It wasn’t my first period, but I was still figuring out my body and the details of flow. I’d felt ashamed of menstruation. Christianity suggested that women’s bodies were best hidden and I hated that in the common bathhouses at camp it was obvious that I’d been on my period, so I didn’t change my pad often enough. I wondered how long it had been leaking, if dots of red had appeared during Bible Exploration or drama class. I’d only packed two pairs of shorts and resigned myself to wearing the other ones for the rest of the week.
That summer, I confessed to her that I was Catholic. ‘I don’t really belong here,’ I said, and explained that I wasn’t Methodist or Baptist or whatever I was supposed to be.
Almost everyone had left the dining hall when I exited the bathroom and walked back to my cabin with a notebook — thank God I’d brought a notebook — behind me. When a counselor asked if I was ok, I told her that I sat in something. I thought she may have believed me, though considering it now, at a camp full of women, I’m sure she and everyone else knew exactly what happened. Just like when I’d had an accident two years before, no one said a word, though I have to imagine the whole camp noticed. Everyone was kind, which meant they said nothing. Camp was home for my most embarrassing moments, and my most generous friends. I couldn’t name it then, but I was discovering the grace of friendship and the strength of women supporting one another.
Camp Cherith was devoid of the summer camp tropes I saw in teen movies or Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” video: no band of misfits, no sneaking out of cabins, no summer-long flings, no kissing by the lake on the last night of summer. No boys, no sexual awakening. Though we were all girls — and assumed to be heterosexual — we changed clothes chastely, in sleeping bags and under t-shirts, avoiding having our bodies out in the open.
As much as I enjoyed camp, there were constant square peg moments. Of course, not all campers were the same — some were homeschooled; some went to public schools that rivaled mine in sports. Some read Harry Potter; some thought those books promoted witchcraft. What the girls seemed to have in common was that they were either disinterested in or scandalized by the secular culture that informed my personality. Many of them listened exclusively to religious music and discussed Veggie Tales, a cartoon that tells Bible stories with anthropomorphic vegetables. Meanwhile, I sang along to alternative radio and longed for someone with whom I could discuss The Simpsons.
I realize now how “Christ in Every Aspect of Life” can be overwhelming, even oppressive, particularly for a young person. I felt like I was supposed to be listening to Christian rock and reading the Left Behind novels, a series about the heathens excluded from the Rapture, then watching the Kirk Cameron film adaptation. Every single thing I did should have been, foremost, in service and praise to Him. Camp administrators didn’t expect me not to ride my bike or go to the mall, but the feeling was that any moment that wasn’t lived in the glory of God was lived away from it. Devout as we were, my Catholic family didn’t operate like that, nor did my Protestant friends.
As I got older, I became less excited to go to camp, which meant missing a week of precious summer vacation with my friends at home. In that magical, teenage way, you never knew which day was going to be the most fun, the craziest, the one with the best stories and inside jokes. One week while I was gone, my friends took a particularly great trip to the zoo and talked about it for the rest of the summer, but were completely disinterested in the anecdotes and woodworking projects I brought back from camp. When I was 14, they all sang along to what they called “the Abercrombie & Fitch song” — not some commercial jingle like I expected, but LFO’s “Summer Girls,” which became a hit in the six days I was away from a radio. I felt like I had spent ages off the grid, like I’d returned from space to a new cultural landscape. But it was tradition to go to camp, a routine like mass, so I went back to those Blue Ridge hills every year.
I’ve never been in a sorority, but I did spend three years in an all-female leadership program through my Christian summer camp. Hummer had encouraged me to apply but to me there was no question — my years at camp had been leading to this. Plus, I expected it would look good on college applications; becoming a CILT was like becoming an Eagle Scout, except graduates don’t go on to be Senators. In addition to required homework and meetings throughout the year, we now spent an additional week at camp and were tasked with teaching activities and leading nightly devotionals at cabins, all while taking our own CILT-specific classes on education, leadership, and childhood development, and completing projects in order to graduate to the next level. Most important was creating your resource file, a collection of crafts, songs, games, campfire recipes, ice breakers, activity lesson plans, and scripture to use in your life as a counselor. I still have the Word docs for my resources, fat with Comic Sans and copied over and over from hard drives for almost 20 years, though I’ve never used them again.
For my CILT Initiation, three other first-years and I were dressed as flowers, with cardboard pots and poster-board petals around our faces. In the afternoon we were “watered” with watering cans. It was the bonding experience I’d imagined and I felt like my fellow CILTies and I had been through something together. I wonder if there are women now — younger than me, but not by much — with goofy 5x7s of me, the way I have of the CILTs from my childhood.
Camp was a microcosm and I spent almost all of my time with my fellow “CILTies,” bunking together, taking classes, doing homework, and teaching. We sang and prayed and cried and worked together. They saw me at my best, laughing and devout, and my worst, stressed, homesick, dirty. We shaved our legs in the open area of the communal bathroom (modesty briefly forgotten in our sisterhood) and giggled in our sleeping bags as we fell asleep. YBSS (an acronym for Yellow-Bellied Sap Sucker) and I shared a love of The Princess Bride. When CILTs used my bird name, Sunny, a misspelled tribute to the cartoon on the Cocoa Puffs box, it had the familiar ring of a nickname. I was part of something, and I felt more confident in my CILT shirt than anything else I had worn that year, buoyed by the other girls standing with me. There is no faster way to form a friendship than through stress, isolation, and conversations about your personal relationship with God. I’d found a home at camp, and I expected my fellow CILTies to be lifelong friends.
It was a difficult two weeks to be a teenager, hormones raging. If there were any males around, perhaps on the kitchen staff or a camper’s brother at drop-off, we were directed to think of them as trees. You wouldn’t hug or kiss a tree. You wouldn’t even speak to a tree. Camp was sexless, and some fellow CILTs explained that they didn’t date, they courted, entering chaste relationships under the guidance of parents, to determine if it was God’s will for them to marry each other. I just fantasized about having a boyfriend.
During a CILT Bible study, we discussed how to react, as Christians, to the temptations of entertainment. One girl described the difficulty of liking the Backstreet Boys since they don’t promote Christian values, citing AJ McLean’s tattoo of the number 69. “Because, you know, that’s…not…good,” she trailed off. We looked away as she spoke, drawing patterns into the dirt with twigs.
Puffin jumped in. “No, it’s very good.” Our heads shot up in unison. We stared at our counselor, a no-nonsense woman in her 30s, mouths agape. “…When you’re married. I don’t want you to think that those things are bad. They can be very good for people who are married.” It was the most progressive viewpoint I remember hearing from her. Someone chimed in that the 69 tattoo was actually for his zodiac symbol, Cancer. Puffin then explained that astrology was a sin, and I remained confused and chastened.
I loved my fellow CILTies, but as time went on, I didn’t feel as connected to them, or to the program. I tried to fit — I did assignments, I went to CILT events throughout the year, I joked and worked and prayed. But being an over-committed millennial teenager with AP classes, National Honor Society, and drama club, I didn’t always complete my CILT coursework. Once, Puffin and Whipper (for Whippoorwill), pulled me away from a retreat for a serious talking-to about my commitment, which I somehow assured them was solid.
When I was old enough, I drove myself to camp, parking my faded red Dodge Colt next to the counselors’ cars, while the rest of the CILTs, including those with licenses, continued to be dropped off by their parents. Even those solo drives seemed like an act of rebellion, though I didn’t know against what.
I recognize my experience is far from the hate many people experience within religion. But it was demoralizing to feel consistently off-balance in a place that was supposed to feel like home. I tried to prove that I was just like these people, a good Christian and a good person, all while figuring out who I was in the first place.
I tried to share pieces of my life with my camp friends, and vice versa. I brought my high school yearbook to a weekend CILT camping trip to show them pictures from plays and pep rallies, and the long inscription from a Scottish exchange student on whom I had a major crush. I kept bringing the book out but, as with trying to describe a dream to someone else, my friends never appreciated it the way I wanted them to. When the day turned to rain, I went into my tent to find that one side of my duffel bag — the pocket that contained the yearbook — was touching the side of the tent and had gotten soaked. Nothing else was in that pocket and nothing else in my bag was damaged. I pulled the paper apart, praying that my favorite page was intact, but the one he signed was the most sodden, his words vanished into a watercolor smear of blue ink. The coincidence that my yearbook was the only thing wettened, and that page the only one destroyed, felt like God’s work too. I just didn’t know what He was trying to teach me.
A few weeks later, the day after my crush went back to Scotland, I drove myself to camp for the last time. I had forgotten to bring the directions the staff had sent and scrutinized my Mapquest printout, which got me close to the campground but not inside it. Sweating in my clunker’s inadequate A/C, I circled dirt roads for hours, sobbing about a boy I wanted to kiss before marriage, about the camaraderie of suburban summer nights, about losing all of it in this prudish world where no one knew him, or me anymore.
That night after I’d calmed down, we CILTs planned and hosted a “songfest” for the newly arrived campers. As we stood together in the front of the dining hall, I felt the quiet faith within me building so that the song was a prayer: My heart’s one desire is to be holy, set apart for You, Lord. I loved God and I loved these girls. I wanted to be a good Christian, and I wanted to be part of this group. I heard the chorus of my friends around me and felt again like I was part of something. Next to me, Fairy Tern and other CILTs closed their eyes and raised their arms as they sang, I assume, with the same powerful emotions. I tried it, lifting my palms to the ceiling, but it felt awkward to stand like that, so out in the open, and broke my meditative state. Were they so overcome with feeling that they did it naturally? Just like when I prayed with Road Runner to be saved, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be feeling. Would this this pose bring me closer to God, or signal that I already was? I felt like I was faking — showing the campers some physical manifestation of faith that I didn’t totally feel. How could I be an example of a godly life if I was really an example of awkwardness, of uncertainty, of trying and failing?
Camp Cherith was devoid of the summer camp tropes I saw in teen movies or Mariah Carey’s ‘Always Be My Baby’ video: no band of misfits, no sneaking out of cabins, no summer-long flings, no kissing by the lake on the last night of summer.
Five days later, on the morning of my CILT Graduation, I met Hummer in the empty dining hall for my exit interview. I imagined myself in just a few hours, when the room would be transformed by spiraled streamers and dimmed lights, standing on the dais and accepting a flame onto my candle that had been passed from CILT to CILT. “Katy,” Hummer began, dropping my bird name for the meeting, “you know to be a counselor here, and to graduate from CILT, you need to be a Christian.” I nodded. “Well, this doesn’t tell me that you are.”
She pushed a piece of paper toward me. It was my Testimony, the story of how I became a Christian, a term I was unfamiliar with until I was assigned to write it. I wrote that I was born into a religious family and God was always part of my life. Across that dining hall table, I explained to Hummer that as a Catholic I never thought I had to “become” a Christian, that I was one since Baptism, but that I’d asked for salvation anyway. “Besides,” I added, “I was saved here at camp,” and retold the story of praying with Road Runner five years earlier — the same story that got my name on the wall in Magic Marker, the same story on the page in front of us. For a place so concerned with saving, I couldn’t believe Camp Cherith didn’t keep track of these things. The failsafe I’d planned when I was 12 hadn’t worked, though my explanation satisfied Hummer enough to let me graduate that night.
CILT Graduation wasn’t as glamorous as I’d remembered. I didn’t feel pretty or accomplished or wise, despite the nice speech the counselors gave about me (about which I remember nothing), despite the hugs from my friends, despite the cards from campers, despite the blue shirt. That day, the differences that I had let slide over the past 10 years felt inescapable. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the signs that I wasn’t totally comfortable at camp, nor was it satisfied with me. Still, I thought I had assimilated, that I had proved myself a passable, if not perfect, Christian. I had become more fervent than most Catholics, memorizing scripture and forgoing Hail Marys for personal prayers, but I realized then that I would never be Christian enough for my Christian camp.
YBSS, who graduated the previous summer and was already a counselor, wrote me a card that urged me not to be a “disappearing CILTie” — one who completed the program, but never came back another year. Even as I hugged her, I knew that’s exactly what I would be, but I felt guilty about it too. I spent the next week assisting her as a junior counselor. I was glad to not be forced out of the nest and I hung back as much as possible, avoiding any of the leadership I’d just spent three years training for.
“Sunny, will you pray with us?” A week after my graduation I attended the final campfire with everyone else, and when Hummer told campers to find a counselor if they wanted to be saved, I hoped I’d somehow be invisible in the indigo night. I’m still surprised that those girls came up to me, and I wonder if all the other counselors had been taken. In that moment I was one of those kids, searching for comfort, for answers, for connection. As we huddled on the grass, the light from the fire behind us, my murmured, improvised prayer seemed good enough. The girls lifted their heads, tearful but comforted, which is maybe the best thing you can ask for in a prayer. Now, I’m proud of my young self for helping those girls, even when I felt uncomfortable. At the time, I was grateful that I didn’t fuck it up.
The next day, I loaded up my little red car and never went back.
There are some things acquired in adolescence that remain with you. Your height. An acne scar. A crush that exists long after you last met eyes in the hallway. Eighteen years after that last summer at camp, I’m a liberal writer in Brooklyn who spends Christmas at my parents’ parish and Easter drinking wine instead of going to mass. Still, I can’t shake what I learned at camp — collaboration, unscripted prayer, finding God in nature — or the fun I had there. When I walk my dog in the park, the thick smell of humidity on grass brings me back to early-morning flag ceremonies. At camp I recognized women as leaders and learned to be one myself.
A couple years ago, I was at a work conference when I recognized a woman with sandy blonde hair and a kind face. We squinted at each other for a moment, sorting through mental files, and I glanced at her name tag, though it didn’t help. “Sunny?” she eventually asked. Scarlet? It turns out that Scarlet Tanager became a librarian while I worked in book publishing. We caught up under the florescent lights of the convention center, in slacks and blouses instead of shorts and sneakers. I inquired after her younger sister, who was a CILT with me, and we traded off asking about other friends: Do you hear from Lauren? Oriole? Sarah? Snow Bunting? She updated me about babies, jobs, and moves, using their given and their bird names — for her they exist in both the real world and at camp. I remained friends with some CILTs after our teen years — YBSS and I attended Fairy Tern’s wedding — but we’ve since fallen out of touch. “No,” I told Scarlet, I don’t hear from them. “Although, sometimes I see them on Facebook.”
For years I hesitated to post on social media for fear that camp people would judge my political updates and photos in bars. Some of them write about how vaccines are made from the cells of aborted babies, others post anti-liberal memes. Then again, some of them drink wine and listen to David Bowie and post that Black Lives Matter. They occasionally write about camp but they don’t usually tag me, and I feel both excluded and relieved. Every few months I search for Road Runner, imagining that she creates feminist art and has the same religous misgivings I do, but I’ve never been able to find her.
Eighteen years after that last summer at camp, I’m a liberal writer in Brooklyn who spends Christmas at my parents’ parish and Easter drinking wine instead of going to mass.
I still feel beholden to the people I knew at camp because I feel responsible to the person I was at camp. Even with its imperfections, camp was a part of me, and in some ways it still is. If those people reject me, and in turn if I reject camp — despite the fact that both of us did at the time — I feel as if I’ll lose that part of my history. Like those summers, which formed who I am and how I see the world, are somehow negated. How do I dismiss a place that built me without denying who I was, and the person I’ve become?
Camp people weren’t the only evangelical Christians I knew, as a kid or an adult, but they were the most influential. Like so many things absorbed in youth, camp was not just a lesson in gospels and fire building, but in the world around me. I learned how religion can be judgmental (Catholicism, for the record, doubled down on this notion), and how it can contradict itself. I was exposed to how generous and open it can make people. I saw how meaningful it can be to consider a higher power and to let yourself feel deeply, and the beautiful connection of sharing something intensely personal with another human being. It’s all valuable knowledge, perhaps even more now than then.
For years I defended evangelical Christians. I chastised friends when they were creeped out by megachurches and made fun of “sheltered” homeschoolers. Evangelicals and I were different but connected, two sets of footprints in the sand. I saw the best of these girls and women, who gave up part of their summer to help us roast marshmallows and follow Christ. I know these people; they are kind and fun, even if I don’t agree with them.
But in 2019, it’s much harder to find the good in these institutions, and people who unquestioningly subscribe to them. I think of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who illegally denied same sex marriage licenses on account of the Supreme Court marriage decision conflicting with her religious views. I think of Christian-owned craft store Hobby Lobby, which refuses to pay for insurance coverage of birth control but will cover vasectomies and Viagra. I think of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of sexually assaulting teenagers, and the people who supported him because they share the same beliefs. And I think about my friends, who I still feel a deep, nostalgic love for, who, for one week a year, felt like sisters. More and more, I see stories of Christian women pushing back against the homophobic, patriarchal teachings of their churches and of the Trump administration. I hope for this of my camp friends, but don’t feel close enough to them to find out for sure.
I wish I could allow myself to give up my fondness toward camp, but just as I let our differences slide then, I’ve been doing the same in my adult life. I’m only now coming to terms with the idea that the Christianity I learned there may not represent me. Now, perhaps I need to do what I didn’t when I was a teenager: let camp go. I can develop my own understanding of God, and He might still exist in songs and mountains.
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Katy Hershbergeris a writer and editor in New York. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from The New School, and her work has appeared in Catapult, the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.
Editor: Sari Botton